Excerpt from Chlora’s Book of the Month Club: September
Copyright 2014, Ginger Henry Geyer
It is a rainy, gloomy Sunday afternoon at Grandmother’s house and Chlora doesn’t feel too good…
Chlora felt kind of puny.
She had the purple blues,
which meant she didn’t know why she was glum;
Maybe she had soaked up too much color
from the stained glass, but no,
there wasn’t enough sunshine this morning
to even get a glow out of those church windows.
Maybe it was all that talk of war at lunch.
She felt a spot simmering
on her lip and knew that a big honker of a fever blister
was coming on in its usual place.
There was nothing she could do about fever blisters,
they just laid in wait and erupted when they felt like it.
Not even faith could clear it up,
but maybe Vaseline would calm it down.
Those viruses really get around.
How’d she get that anyhow?
How do you get a herpes virus
if you’ve never been kissed?
Her mother was more concerned
about Chlora’s personal hygiene
than her mental hygiene.
She had a sin sick soul.
They sang that slow old hymn in church today
about the bomb in Gilead that saves the sin sick soul.
Chlora needed a bomb.
Or maybe it was a balm, like in lip balm.
That was it, she needed a little bitty tube
of that magic lip ointment
that would stop that cold sore in its tracks.
Surely bombs, like the ones they were arguing over at lunch,
blowing up Vietnam and the Middle East,
surely those don’t help sin sick souls,
much less heal them.
Chlora looked at herself in the bathroom mirror
and began to feel an ache in her deep throat.
A quiver went through her from head to toe.
Maybe it was that long-lived bronchitis
that everybody passed around this time of year.
She stuck out her tongue and looked at the back of her throat
It was bright red. The little tornado-shaped thing
hung down in the back. Luckily her tonsils
were removed a long time ago.
The surgeon let her keep those gross tonsils
in a small jar of stinky stuff.
No wonder they had made her sick.
Bacterial rule the world; maybe she had the affluenza
from being too affluent.
That was highly possible.
The medicine cabinet was full of stuff.
There was a war on drugs waging in there.
Little orange bottles of pills, bandages, toothpaste,
and big jars of multimedia vitamins, like horse pills.
Mecuricome for wounds and Chiggar-Rid which was
like smelly nail polish, Syrup of Ipecac, a razor,
and a box of matches.
The imagined sound of those made her wince.
Granddaddy’s old hearing aid that
squalked like a parrot was posed on the shelf
like a greasy crustatean that died in place.
His blood pressure cuff was next to that
and a box with the insulin paraphanalia.
Once Chlora busted into the bathroom without knocking
and found him sitting on the pot
giving himself a shot in his thigh.
She couldn’t stand to get a shot.
How could he ever be so brave as to do it himself?
It was that die-beeties that made him die.
Chlora rambled around in the little shelves
and came up with one tube of lipstick.
It was pointy, shaped in a slender cone,
angled to Grandmother’s bottom lip.
If it wasn’t quite so red, Chlora would use it.
The medicine cabinet held no hope for hot lips.
And its odor made her sneeze,
that eye-opening combo of rubbing alcohol
bandaids, and cough syrup.
She tugged at a Kleenex, conveniently located
on the back of the toilet, always there for you.
Their other slogan was Kleenex says Bless You!
There were double blessings here, two boxes of Kleenex,
blue for boys and pink for girls,
to keep their sneezes apart.
Or to match the decor.
Just seeing them prompted a ka-choo!
and since nobody was around, Chlora blessed herself.
She blew her nose with a blue tissue
and dabbed at her lip with a pink one.
The two wads of fluff were then tossed into the potty
and twirled around together in the flush.
There was also a can of Lysol
on the toilet tank, ready for bathroom stink bombs.
Lots of southern ladies sprinkled their prayers
with bless you’s, like fresheners aimed at smells.
That was what they needed
when Jesus opened up the tomb of Lazarus
and he came out alive and stinking.
Jesus’ miracles always drew a crowd,
but he seemed to dismiss the magic
and the admiration, and emphasized the love instead.
He probably had to tamp it all down,
all the supernatural stuff he was capable of doing,
but every now and then a miracle squeezed out anyhow.
As far as Chlora was concerned, her Granddaddy
was a miracle worker too.
He could do magic tricks when he wore his top hat.
Once he did a show for her birthday party
and all the kids were astonished when he pulled
a long scarf out of Chlora’s ear.
His card tricks were really slick too,
and one time he patiently showed her how to do it.
It was all about the slight of hand, and distracting mirrors
Chlora had practiced that trick right here
in the big mirror over the sink.
She wondered what the difference was
between magic and miracles
and decided it had to do with intention.
Chlora continued her bathroom exploration,
looking for the Vaseline.
The smell under the sink was more of mildew.
There was a wobbly stack of toilet paper,
a nasty toilet brush, cleansers, old towels, and
a baggie of soap shards. Those were kinda
interesting, in soft flat shapes of pale soapy colors.
Grandmother would melt them down into a new bar.
There was a big box of those mattress pads
for Barbie dolls under there.
Chlora liked to stack them up and lay Barbie on top,
like in the princess on a pea story, to see how many
pads she could pile on before they tumbled over.
Grandmother didn’t mind, since she didn’t need them anymore.
On the counter was a display of unmatched towels,
one for hands, one for faces, and one for feet,
giving almost equal opportunity for all body parts.
But if you wanted a thorough cleansing of your temple
you’d reach for the fluffy white one for baptism.
Across from the towel rack was a
tarnished oval tray of toiletries.
There seemed to be something there for everybody.
The tray held a combination
of items left over by guests and family,
containers jammed in there together,
rubbing off on each other.
Yes indeed, up front and personal
was a jar of generic petroleum jelly. Also
some fancy Gucci lotion
that looked like the Chrysler building,
Right Guard deodorant for ultimate protection,
Fiber Choice tablets, High Dimension Hair Color,
Big Sexy Hair Mousse, Head & Shoulders,
Grandmother’s baby powder
which she rubbed on her soft bosom,
and Grandaddy’s Old Spice shaving cream.
Chlora dabbed the greasy stuff on her lip
and observed the tray.
The whole arrangement looked like pictures of city skylines,
skyscrapers surrounded by spagetti strands of freeways,
like New York City proudly
crammed on the island of Manhattan with its twin towers
sparkling in the morning sun.
Chlora stared at the tray and mulled:
No man is an island, entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main…
No man is an island,
but many are peninsulas, like Florida.
Is our ultimate destination a city?
The pearly gates and golden streets of heaven
sounded a bit ostentatious, like Fifth Avenue.
People sure do have different ideas of beauty,
of paradise, of afterlife.
Complex things never were just black and white.
But maybe Hell was.
Hell was on earth, she knew that much.
It probably looked like that black and white
Guernica mural of Picasso’s.
Even it had beige in it.
Its fractured cubist shapes of screeching
people and animals wrapped themselves
around the toiletry containers
and squeezed the island
till the lids on the bottles were about to explode.
She recalled Picasso’s quote:
“Painting is not done to decorate apartments.
It is an instrument of war.”
Picasso knew about war and its saturated bombing
of towns, where every facade was blasted to bits.
Broken people dying in the streets below a harsh eyeball
of a lightbulb that gave no illumination except to
a smug bull and a shrill horse of the apocalypse.
Maybe Picasso didn’t intend it, but he sure did
pull keening right out into the public eye.
We had our own war going on,
yet nobody saw it, not really.
So what was art’s role in times like these,
to keep the door ajar?
The mirror reflected
Picasso’s shrieking mother holding her dead child,
like in a Pieta surrounded
by the Massacre of the Innocents,
or the dark shadow of Goya on a firing line,
enacting his Disasters of War,
Art history showed things like this,
even if they kept them out of the newspapers.
Picasso’s women were machines for weeping,
like Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross
in that Grunewald painting.
They’d parade sick people
who had bad skin rashes
in front of it
so they’d have misery for company.
How that made them feel better
was a mystery to Chlora.
Jesus’ crucifixion never
make her feel one bit better,
but it seemed to comfort other people.
Those poor folks with St. Elmo’s Fire
should have had a bath with
Vaseline Intensive Care.
Chlora’s tummy now rumbled with ickiness.
She knew to keep quiet about tummy aches
or it’d set off the fret of care.
It’d launch a census on the contents of her lunch,
and out would come the chalky Pepto-Bismol.
Sure enough, a fat pink bottle of
Pepto Bismol was at the ready in the medicine cabinet.
No doubt that stuff was a gateway drug.
Then they’d give her clear broth to eat,
which was another word for nothing.
The French word for it was consommé
which made it taste better and
apparently led to consummation in French movies.
Or if it was deemed a respiratory problem,
she’d get slicked up like a greased pig with Vick’s Vapo Rub.
That smell made your nostrils stand up and pay attention.
She knew she’d be stuck with the vaporizer at night.
She didn’t like its smell either but the buzz was nice.
it’d gurgle and chuckle and fog up her bedroom,
make her pillow damp and her hair frizz.
Once she got the chickenpox on purpose,
just to drive her mother crazy.
She got quarantined to her room
which was A-okay with Chlora.
None of her friends or siblings could visit her.
She pretended she was stuck in a princess tower
getting her meals through a slit in the door,
on a tray sort of like in-room dining in a fancy hotel.
But then would come the big spoon of medicine
that tasted awful, like drinking mouthwash.
Mary Poppins must’ve had a really BIG spoon of sugar
to make the medicine go down.
Maybe she used one of those super long spoons
that the Orthodox used in communion.
She saw that in National Geographic
which fortunately had a caption, for otherwise
it looked like some chintzy form of charity,
with richly dressed old men
spoon-feeding orphans, like in Oliver Twist.
On the other hand, a spoon might be the
best weapon to prevent war.
War was the least pro-life thing
Chlora could think of.
That sinister Guernica reminded Chlora
that her own troubles weren’t so bad.
She fortunately had never trafficked in tragedy
except in her overactive imagination.
She knew enough about suffering to realize
that good people were not immune to it.
Cosmetics can’t pretty up a face
contorted in grief. The stench of death
can’t be obliterated by perfume.
That tray of toiletries was as fancy and oval
as the office that declared these endless wars,
but all the things on there had no choice
but to rub off on each other,
mingling their griefs
with their unmentionable intimacies.
Yes, that big painting had a tragic sort of beauty,
the kind that is in-your-face
much more than ordinary suffering is.
Chlora would take ordinary suffering any old day.
She applied more Vaseline to her lip,
and determined it was time for that lip to stiffen up.
She was all at once grateful and embarrassed
for her own protected comfort zone
where death is sanitized,
where pain can be bought off, and
where the end-of-the-world is simply unimaginable.
Here, where well-meaning folks who’d never
experienced catastrophes would prematurely advise
those in angst to let the healing begin,
before the lament had even sunk in.
And others would pile on bouquets of flowers
and stuffed animals and candles and notecards
to expunge the wound from the place,
a sad attempt at visual empathy, or just
an action to prevent losing their minds.
Artists could help with this collective expression,
show us how to name the pain
and contrast it to the value of life.
Maybe that Picasso was just one big cry
for authentic community. It left no choice
but to come together, be one flesh,
to find the stillness that’s a result of utter chaos.
There was hope rooted in that reality.
Otherwise, suffering was bound to get
so compartmentalized from real life
that someday they’d ban toiletries on planes.
Chlora picked up the Old Spice shaving lotion
and drew a long, kindly sniff.
Olfactory memories reveal what’s rooted in our past,
whether love or violence.
Chlora looked in the mirror.
Her cheeks were flushed.
Her eyes were watery.
Her whole little body shivered.
But there were things she wanted to do today.
The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
Flesh. That’s what it is all about.
Frail, fragile, fleeting,